December 15, 2017
Mar 12, 2017; Hartford, CT, USA; Cincinnati Bearcats forward Kyle Washington (24) reacts to a play against the Southern Methodist Mustangs in the first half of the championship game during the AAC Conference Tournament at XL Center. Mandatory Credit: David Butler II-USA TODAY Sports

The March Madness season officially kicked off on Sunday, when the ranking and seeding of all 68 men’s teams who made the NCAA tournament bracket were announced in the annual “Selection Sunday” broadcast show. This is the time where college hoops comes to the forefront of the basketball landscape, with excitement and upsets abound.

Every fan filling out a bracket wants to know the inside scoop — what do all the numbers mean? Who matches up well with who? What team could be this year’s Cinderella? What top seeds are most susceptible to being knocked out early?

We know you don’t have time to watch every team and study them in depth — but here at BBALL BREAKDOWN, we do! So we have compiled information and summaries on each team to help you prepare for the tournament, make the best bracket choices available and enjoy the most exciting time of the year in sports.

Here is our look at the top of the bracket in the South Region, where all three historic programs North Carolina, Kentucky and UCLA will look to slug it our for a chance to go to the Final Four.

 

The following games will be played Friday and Sunday from Sacramento, CA

6. Cincinnati Bearcats vs. 11. (Kansas State/ Wake Forest)

Mick Cronin and the Cincinnati Bearcats return to the NCAA Tournament for the seventh consecutive season following an outstanding 29-5 campaign. Cincinnati’s season was complete with marquee wins at Iowa State and at home against SMU.  

Per usual, Cronin’s team does the majority of their work on the defensive end, where they endlessly pressure the ball and force turnovers at a top 40 rate. Cincinnati’s constant defensive pressure causes opponents to take a lot of tough shots and it shows in the efficiency numbers – Cincinnati’s defensive shooting efficiency was the 8th best rate in the entire country. The Bearcats both steal and block opponents at a top 20 rate and just make life generally miserable for offenses.

Offensively, Cronin has perhaps his best unit during his tenure at Cincinnati. Leading scorers Kyle Washington and Jacob Evans both score efficiently and hit over 38 percent of their attempts from behind the three-point arc. Jarron Cumberland, who plays both wing positions off the bench, also scores efficiently and leads the team in steal rate.  

Still, the Bearcats often struggle to produce much half court offense. They turn the ball over (by percentage of possessions) less than any team in the country, but their shooting efficiency is outside of the top 100. They rely heavily on creating turnovers to create easy offense, and their success in the first game will likely depend on who wins the Wake Forest/Kansas State first round matchup. Wake Forest takes care of the ball very well, while Kansas State turns it over very frequently. Cincinnati fans should be cheering for Kansas State if they want to make it past their first matchup this year. — Matt Way

After going just 11-20 in Danny Manning’s second year as head coach, Wake Forest finds its way back into the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2010. The Demon Deacons enter the tournament after going 9-9 in the ACC, with their only questionable loss at Syracuse, a team many believed would get into this year’s tournament. Wake Forest’s resume was boosted by their strong final week of the regular season, where they beat 2 seed Louisville and went to Blacksburg and beat tournament-bound Virginia Tech.

Wake Forest is led by sophomore center and #10 KenPom player of the year John Collins.  Collins, at 6’10, overwhelmed opponents in the paint this year, to the tune of a 62 percent shooting percentage. When Collins isn’t making shots in the paint, he’s rebounding his teams’ misses – Collins ranked seventh in the entire country this season in offensive rebounding rate. Collins also makes a habit of spending a lot of time on the free throw line, a place he visited 212 times this season.

Collins’ outstanding offense is the primary reason that Wake Forest finished with the 8th most efficient (KenPom) offense this season. Wake Forest does, however, surround Collins with several shooters – KeyShawn Woods, Mitchell Wilbekin, and Austin Arians all shot over 40 percent from three this season. Second leading scorer, Bryant Crawford, is another adequate outside shooter, but his primary job is to get Collins the ball in good positions.  

Defensively, Wake Forest struggled all year, finishing just 160th in defensive efficiency per KenPom. The Demon Deacons’ opponents have shot very well from the floor this year, and Wake Forest was one of the absolute worst teams in the country in creating turnovers – a very bad combination.  

Wake Forest’s defense will limit their ability to make a deep run in their return to the tournament and they drew a first round matchup with Kansas State, who has several good rim protectors that could make life a bit more difficult for John Collins. — Matt Way

The last at-large bid in the tournament, the Wildcats were sweating things out, and for good reason. They’re only 4-9 against tournament teams, they played a fairly weak non-conference schedule for a Big Twelve team and finished 5-9 in their last 14 games. Still, their offensive balance and propensity for forcing turnovers make them a difficult team to prepare for. If all cylinders are firing for Bruce Weber’s team, they could make more noise than simply winning the 11-seed play-in game on Tuesday night.

That offensive balance features four double-digit scorers and a solid inside-outside game. Senior leader Wesley Iwundu is their most versatile force and leading scorer, but he hardly forces things or does it alone. Everybody shoots it decently, and stretch-four Dean Wade (40 percent from three) can create matchup problems for teams without two mobile big men.

Defensively, D.J. Johnson is the interior presence that blocks shots and allows their guards to be so aggressive on the wings. Weber’s program has hung its hat on defensive play, and this season is its apex, as the Wildcats are top thirty in the country in defensive efficiency, according to KenPom.

A tough opening matchup against Wake Forest will be a test for kansas State. If they can get past it and onto the next round, their style of play and offensive balance could give a Cincinnati team some trouble. That would be a low scoring, grind-it-out affair. — Adam Spinella

 

3. UCLA Bruins vs. 14. Kent State Golden Flashes

UCLA added two freshmen in Lonzo Ball and T.J. Leaf to a team that was 15-17 last season and is now a national championship contender. For the Bruins, everything runs through Ball. The potential 2017 number one pick has the court vision of Jason Kidd, is 6-foot-6, and can hit NBA-range three’s, albeit with a Kevin Martin-esque form. In Leaf, a projected first-round pick, the Bruins have a versatile big man who can stretch the floor. The two first-year players complement a loaded offensive attack featuring shooters Bryce Alford, Isaac Hamilton and center Thomas Welsh. On top of that, they have one of the best bench players in the county in guard Aaron Holiday, and an intriguing rim protector in freshmen Ike Anigbogu, both of whom are projected first-round picks in 2018.

The Bruins are the only team in America to beat every team on their schedule; they avenged their three regular season losses to Oregon, Arizona and USC before falling to Arizona for the second time in the Pac-12 tournament semifinals. On top of that, they won at Rupp Arena against Kentucky and beat a solid Michigan team in their non-conference slate.

The Bruins success is due to their historically good offense. UCLA pushes the ball at every opportunity, spreads the floor and keeps the ball moving. They led the nation in scoring and assists, and almost always have five shooters and scoring threats on the floor to surround Ball.

Where UCLA is vulnerable is on the defensive end — not exactly a surprise when you see the scores of their games. The Bruins have played a mix of man and zone, but at times lack physicality defending and rebounding in the paint. After getting waxed in their 2-3 zone early in the season, they moved to a 3-2, which has helped prevent dribble penetration. They also found a better defensive look in man to man, with Anigbogu able to control the paint. If the Bruins can be just slightly above average on defense, they can beat anyone.

Another area of concern is their depth. The Bruins rotation is just eight deep, and their bench consists of two centers and a point guard. When Hamilton and Alford go cold, their defense, especially Alford, becomes a liability. With few proven players to substitute in, UCLA is unfortunately one major injury away from being too thin. It may not rear it’s ugly head too much in March when benches shorten, but it could creep up on the second game of a weekend.

UCLA would be the worst defensive team (under current metrics) to win a national title. The team has improved in minor steps throughout the season, but they’re still just 78th in defensive efficiency. Steve Alford will try to push the pace and control the tempo to keep UCLA on the offensive as much as possible. With Ball running their modern, NBA-style offense, they’re as much of a favorite as any team out there. — Eli Horowitz

After finishing only 4th in their division, the Kent State Golden Flashes won four straight games in the MAC conference tournament to secure a spot in this year’s NCAA Tournament. Kent State went just 10-8 during conference play but finished the season strong, winning nine of their last ten games to finish the season strong.

Kent State finished the season ranked 141st in KenPom’s efficiency rankings, ranking decidedly average on both ends of the floor. Offensively, Kent State struggled mightily shooting the ball from both 3 and 2, including a very poor 31.4 percent from behind the three-point line. The frequent misses are mitigated a bit by the one thing that Kent State does well – offensive rebounding. Kent State finished with the sixth best offensive rebounding rate in the country.

Kent State is led by senior center Jimmy Hall. Hall is only 6’8”, but he finished top 60th in the country in offensive rebounding rate on top of being Kent State’s leading scorer by more than 3 points per game. Hall scores efficiently thanks to his good two point shooting and frequent trips to the free throw line. When Hall does get to the free throw line, he shoots well for a big man, converting on 77.5 percent of attempts.  

Hall will need to be the man once again in Kent State’s tough first round matchup against UCLA. Kent State will need to use Hall’s large presence to shorten the game and get the Bruins in foul trouble if the Golden Flashes have any chance of pulling off a first round upset.  — Matt Way

 

The following games will be played Friday and Sunday from Indianapolis, IN

7. Dayton Flyers vs. 10. Wichita State Shockers

For Archie Miller and the Dayton Flyers, this year’s appearance in the NCAA Tournament is their fourth in as many years. Having built a reputation as a strong mid major program, Dayton made this year’s field even despite an early loss in their conference tournament to Davidson.

The loss to Davidson is one of several bad losses for Dayton this year. They previously lost twice to teams outside of the KenPom top 100, losing to both Nebraska and Massachusetts.  Despite those losses, the committee rightly saw a good basketball team who is capable of making noise in the tournament.

Dayton isn’t elite on either end of the floor, but they rank in the 40s in terms of KenPom efficiency both offensively and defensively. Defensively, Dayton is well above-average in terms of shooting percentage, causing turnovers, and defensive rebounding. But, they aren’t particularly great in any one area.

Offensively, Dayton does a lot of their damage by speeding up the game and getting to the free throw line. Leading to the march to the free throw line is Dayton’s two highest scorers: forwards Charles Cooke and Kendall Pollard. Neither Cooke nor Pollard is a particularly great free throw shooter, but their frequent trips and efficient two point shooting holds up a Dayton offense that lacks a truly dynamic creator in the half court.  

For Dayton to make a run in this year’s tournament, they’ll need to play to their strengths: consistently pushing the tempo and living at the free throw line. — Matt Way

The old adage of “who have you played, who have you beat” will be tested with Wichita State as they prepare for another deep NCAA Tournament run. The Shockers under Gregg Marshall have won 25 games or more in eight straight seasons, making their sixth consecutive NCAA Tournament. And Marshall’s teams have pulled off some big runs in the tournament recently, winning at least one game each of the last four years and making a Final Four run in 2013. The Shockers look different without mainstays in the backcourt Ron Baker and Fred VanVleet (both in the NBA), but they’re playing the same type of hard-nosed basketball with a tough, defensive focus.

A top-ten team in the country in terms of efficiency with a strength of schedule number outside the top 100, the Shockers don’t really have many brilliant wins on their resume. They’ve spanked bubble team Illinois State in conference (wins by 41 and 30) after losing to the Redbirds by double digits. Zero seniors don the normal rotation for Gregg Marshall, and this year’s team is far more balanced than the teams prior. Six players average between seven and twelve points a night, and all five starters average at least one assist. The bench has logged heavy minutes all year due to the blowout nature of many of their games — that confidence of having game minutes helps develop the bottom of the rotation for key NCAA Tournament games.

Stepping into the lead guard role has been MVC Freshman of the Year Landry Shamet. Per KenPom, Shamet has an offensive rating of 131.1 — an astronomically high number for any player, let alone a freshman point guard. He’s a name any college basketball fan needs to know beyond this year. Shamet might have NBA dreams some day as a combo guard, but it’s swing forward Markis McDuffie that fills the Cleanthony Early-type role for this Shockers team.

At the end of the day, the Shockers are a top-five three-point shooting team in the country and have one of the better defenses in all the land. Their defensive gap approach, their pressuring match-up zone, and their rare combination of size and athleticism make the Shockers look like a major conference team whenever you watch them play. Dayton and Kentucky are tough matchups in opening weekend, but the Shockers are capable of beating both. — Adam Spinella

 

2. Kentucky Wildcats vs. 15. Northern Kentucky Norse

After a 2012 SEC championship loss to Vanderbilt, Coach John Calipari claimed he didn’t care about the SEC tournament. Kentucky would lose the next two as well, backing up his words. But after wrapping up their third straight SEC tournament title to go along with the regular season crown, Calipari may have had a change of heart. This isn’t Kentucky’s most dangerous team under Coach Cal, but this is one of his most versatile. Kentucky’s starting five includes an elite wing scorer in Malik Monk, a stringy playmaker in De’Aaron Fox, a bull in the paint in “Bam” Adebayo, a seasoned guard in Isaiah Briscoe and a steady senior stretch four in Derek Willis. Fox and Monk are both lottery picks this year, and Adebayo should fall somewhere in the teens of this year’s draft.

This team can beat you in many ways and brings two seniors off the bench who can contribute in Dominique Hawkins and Mychal Mulder. They also have a future NBA player in freshmen Wenyen Gabriel who is a wildcard but gives Kentucky another shooter and athletic big man.

Kentucky is fourth overall in Kenpom, and top 15 in both offensive and defensive efficiency. Similar to Jamal Murray last year, Monk is capable of taking over games and is unguardable at times. But unlike last year’s team that lost in the second round to Indiana, Monk has more help with Fox and Briscoe both able to attack off the catch and force help in the paint. The pressure they put on the rim opens up shots for Gabriel and Willis on the perimeter.

Kentucky’s biggest weakness is shooting. Monk and Willis are the only good shooters in the starting lineup as guards Fox and Briscoe are shooting a lowly 21 and 28 percent from deep respectively. Thus, this team can be bothered by zone defenses and can go cold in a halfcourt game.

Conversely, the Wildcats can really pressure the basketball and are able to find ways to win when they’re slumping offensively. Whether it’s getting to the line or forcing turnovers and getting in transition, this is a team that can manufacture wins; we saw that against Vanderbilt where they came back from a 19-point deficit via the full court press. The blueprint to beat Kentucky is there, but it’s much harder than it sounds to control the tempo against the Wildcats. — Eli Horowitz

The topsy-turvy Horizon League sure saved a great deal of excitement for the conference tournament! Prevailing in the stead of favorites Oakland and Valapraiso was the Norse of Northern Kentucky, punching their first ever bid to the NCAA Tournament in their first season of eligibility. Winning ten of their final eleven games, the Norse are hot heading into the tournament. But trumping a decent mid-major doesn’t guarantee a favorable matchup, and the Norse failed to acquire many big wins on their trip to the Big Dance. KenPom rates them 18th in luck rating — and avoiding both Valpo and Oakland in the conference tournament is a great stroke of luck for a team that beat only one team above .500 on the road.

But let’s focus on the positives here for John Brannen’s club, shall we? The Norse will let it fly from deep, and leading scorer 6’9” center Drew McDonald has taken over 120 treys on the year (and hit 39 percent of them). Four players are in double figures, and point guard Lavone Holland (14.3 points, 4.1 assists) is at his best when attacking and creating for others.

Northern Kentucky can give some teams fits with their spacing on offense, as they play a five-out system. McDonald is a difficult matchup, though a high-level program can likely find the right matchup. On defense they’ll pick up a bit in the full-court and apply high pressure on the wings — two quick ways to frustrate an opponent. Ultimately the Norse don’t have a strong resume or anything that stands out about the way they play that gives them a likely chance as a Cinderella pick over Kentucky. But hey, anything could happen. — Adam Spinella


BBALLBREAKDOWN Staff

Occasionally, we write together.

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